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Irresolute on Colombo

To prove itself a responsible player, India must take a firm stand on UNHRC vote.

Updated: March 13, 2014 9:50 am
With its present strategy, India can neither achieve firm promises on improving conditions for minorities in Sri Lank, nor can it tackle the China factor in the region. With its present strategy, India can neither achieve firm promises on improving conditions for minorities in Sri Lank, nor can it tackle the China factor in the region.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brushed aside pressures from parties in Tamil Nadu to meet Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the sidelines of the BIMSTEC summit in Myanmar. But the approaching United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meet struck a sour note.

Singh did not give Rajapaksa any assurances about India’s stance on the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka. Once again, Sri Lankan state actors may be led to conclude India isn’t a reliable partner in international forums.

The Draft Resolution HRC25/1, “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka”, is sponsored by six countries: the US, the UK, Montenegro, Macedonia, Northern Ireland and Mauritius. This is the third year running that the Sri Lankan state is being questioned by the international community on its post-war processes. For the Sri Lankan state, the UNHRC resolution is about saving face. It does not present any formidable challenges to the China- and Russia-backed state. But it shows that international powers are displeased with Sri Lanka’s actions and attitudes.

A continued rejection of the existing grievances in the country will only lead to more such pressures. The resolution welcomes UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay’s recommendation on the need for an independent international investigation. Though it doesn’t state specific reprisals if expectations are not met, it puts the Sri Lankan authorities under considerable strain.

How is the UNHRC vote significant for India? The Tamil Nadu factor and domestic politics influence its foreign policy decisions on Sri Lanka. Relations with the US, the UK and other potential allies are also important. Another issue that India has to grapple with is the Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). To prevail as a regional power, India must have a firm hand and a friendly handshake when needed. So the vote has many implications for India.

India must realise that national stakeholders, such as political parties and the people of Tamil Nadu, are firmly invested in the Sri Lankan political process. Any government will have to reckon with the fact that the state must take a firm stance against human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and try to establish accountability and transparency in post-war processes. India cannot wash its hands of this mandate. Coalition politics often destabilises Indian foreign policy decisions, but it also democratises foreign policy, making it informed by the sentiments of smaller vote bases. This is something India has to embrace, not struggle with.

Embracing this situation does not mean hiding or not sending out clear signals. For India, the UNHRC vote is an opportunity to strengthen its links with potential partners such as the US. But by participating in the “wrap on the knuckle”, India could take on the responsibility of the region, and keep outside powers from wearing that mantle. That would be a clear sign of much-needed regional leadership in South Asia.

If India can cultivate effective communication with its Sri Lankan counterparts and provide certain assurances, it could pave the way for leverage with Sri Lanka. This is crucial for India to ensure its influence in the IOR. Otherwise, India becomes the unreliable partner and China the stable friend for the Sri Lankan government.

Sri Lankan responses to the perceived Indian betrayal are worrying. India was a trusted friend in the war against the LTTE for more than two decades. But amnesia seems to have set in among senior Sri Lankan officials and intellectuals. Reactions from the state media and government representatives have hardly been constructive. Most news items and speeches emphasise Western hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy instead of focusing on the real issues on the ground.

In some extreme cases, fears have been created about alleged Western efforts to use the international pressures to depose the current government and install a “Western” friendly regime. And India is constantly identified as a fellow conspirator. Without adequate damage control, India, which has already voted against Sri Lanka twice, is hardly going to win trust overnight.

At a meeting of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association in Colombo, a week before he met Singh, Rajapaksa said that he understood the Indian leadership’s compulsions to vote on the Sri Lanka resolution “in an election year”. Though this shows understanding on the part of the Sri Lankan leadership, it is questionable how long such cordial feelings will last if the situation is not handled sensitively.

With its present strategy, India can neither achieve firm promises on improving conditions for minorities in Sri Lank, nor can it tackle the China factor in the region. And neither of these objectives can be achieved without trust and commitment from the Sri Lankan government. Even if India were to vote against Sri Lanka, it must be done in a way that helps it achieve multiple objectives. For, unlike the Western allies that support the resolution, India’s objectives are multi-dimensional, with implications at the national, regional and international level. Its actions should demonstrate that nuance.

The writer is programme officer, Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, Sri Lanka

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